Why are There So Many Denominations?

(Check out my previous article with a similar theme, “Why are There So Many Bible Translations?“)

Take a good look at this “family tree” of Christian denominations here. Confusing, isn’t it? And that doesn’t nearly include all of them.

Why can’t there just be one label on there, titled “The Christian Church” founded by Jesus Christ in 33 AD? Why can’t that single Church have a line drawn from it all the way up to 2016 AD, with no other branches? Why can’t it look like this?

Denominations

Actually, in a sense, it is that way, but it doesn’t look that way. More on that in a bit.

The vast number of Christian denominations is something I’ve heard atheists cite as evidence against the Christian faith. As the argument goes, if Christianity is the truth and the only way to salvation, why are there so many divisions within it? Why would Christians be arguing among themselves? Surely, if Christianity were true, Christians would be in agreement concerning their faith.

Now, this argument mostly ignores that fact that historically, Christians across the entire spectrum of denominations have affirmed many of the same central truths – the importance of Scripture, the work and person of Jesus Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity, etc.

More importantly, this argument presents a bit of a strawman picture of Christianity. The claim that “Christianity must be false, because its own followers can’t completely agree on everything” makes a strange assumption about the nature of religion. In essence, it is saying that “if a religion is the truth, all of its adherents will be in complete unity concerning that religion.” This assertion does not have any foundation. It certainly isn’t an assumption that historical and orthodox Christianity has ever held.

In fact, the New Testament writers anticipated divisions within the Church. The Apostle Paul instructed the Christians in Rome to “watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” (Romans 16:17). There were even apparent divisions in the Church within a few years of Jesus’ ministry. The entire book of Galatians was written in order to refute the teachings of those known as the “Judaizers,” a sect of Jewish Christians who taught that all Christians must observe Old Testament Jewish customs in order to be saved. IMG_2976

Whenever talking about “the Christian Church,” it is helpful to make a distinction concerning what we regard the church to mean. Christian theologians have typically described the church in a twofold manner: the invisible church and the visible church.  The invisible church consists of all those who have been called by the gospel and justified by Christ. It is termed “invisible” because we as humans cannot see into people’s hearts to discern who has faith and who doesn’t. In this sense, the invisible church is the “true” church due to the fact that all of its members have true faith. The visible church, on the other hand, is a manifestation of the invisible church. We cannot see into men’s hearts to discern their faith, but we can get an idea of who our fellow believers are due to their confession of faith and their works before us. Charles Porterfield Krauth, a great Lutheran theologian of the 19th century, summarized this by saying: “Faith makes men Christians; but Confession alone marks them as Christians… By our faith, we are known to the Lord as his; by our Confession, we are known to each other as His children.”[1]

Even though Christians belonging to different denominations can vary in their beliefs about the Christian faith, true believers in Christ can be found throughout the visible church, even with all of its divisions and debates. The invisible church, that is, those who have saving faith in Christ, can be found all throughout the visible church, in all manner of denominations. This does not mean, however, that every individual denomination is correct in its teachings. Edward Koehler describes this well in A Summary of Christian Doctrine:

The visible church is divided into many denominations or confessions, also called churches. There are three large branches of the visible church: the Roman Catholic Church, both Greek and Roman; the Reformed Church, comprising a large number of denominations; and the Lutheran Church, which is also divided into a number of bodies.

These denominations or confessions differ from one another in points of doctrine, and each asserts that its teachings are true. It is absurd to assume that all these churches have the true and right teachings. There is but one truth. A doctrine is either true or false. It cannot be both. . . There is only one true doctrine concerning the creation of the world, the Holy Trinity, the person of Christ, the redemption of the world, the conversion of man, etc. Whatever does not agree with this doctrine is false (323).[2]

So while we recognize that there are true believers (members of the invisible church) throughout various denominations, we also acknowledge that not every denomination can be correct in its public confession of doctrine, due to the exclusive nature of true doctrine. Additionally, there may be those who appear to confess true faith in Christ, yet still do not actually believe it in their hearts. Jesus tells us in Matthew 7:21 that “not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” These individuals would belong to the visible church due to their confession, but not the invisible church, due to their actual lack of belief. Again, Koehler states:

Unbelievers and hypocrites may be active and affiliated with a congregation. However, they do not belong to the [true] church because the terms used in the Scriptures to describe the church indicate that there exists an inner relation and spiritual communion between her members and God. . . All true believers, no matter to which denominational body they belong, are members of this church. However, if one does not have faith, then one is not a member of the church, though he is a priest, minister, or the pope himself (314).[3]

There is only one true and invisible church established by Christ. Anyone who has true faith in Jesus Christ for salvation is a member of this true church, regardless of denominational affiliation. Regardless, denominations are important because they allow Christians of similar conviction and confession to engage in fellowship. We are not to ignore these doctrinal differences, especially those that are blatantly false and harmful. We are told countless times throughout Scripture to avoid false teachers and those teach destructive doctrines.

Why are there so many denominations? It is simply due to the sinfulness of humans. We have a tendency replace God’s words with our own and, in some cases, ignore Him completely. Splits occur because division and disagreement arises along with false teaching. Regardless, God is faithful to His children. The large number of divisions within Christianity are not divisions within the true invisible church, but rather are divisions within the visible church, the imperfect manifestation of the true church.

If you feel troubled by the apparent divisions within Christianity, take heart in the fact that there are true believers throughout many different confessions. Take to heart the words of Jesus in Matthew 16:18 – “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

 


 

[1] Charles Porterfield Krauth, The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology. Philadelphia: United Lutheran Publishing House, 1913: 166.

[2][3] Edward W. A. Koehler, A Summary of Christian Doctrine. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2006.

Don’t Dull the Sword’s Edge

Whenever I hear of a new church that I don’t know much about, I usually look up their website to find out what they believe. Whether it’s non-denominational, Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, or any part of the spectrum, the primary points of confession on their websites are almost always the same. Briefly, it usually goes like this:

•We believe in the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who created all things.
•We believe that Jesus Christ was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin, led a perfect life, died an atoning death, rose from the dead, sits at the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead.
•We believe that the Holy Spirit dwells in each Christian, giving them faith, and allowing them to lead a godly life.
•We believe that the Bible is the inspired and inerrant Word of God, being the sole authority of the Church.

The beliefs of each specific church usually starts to diverge after these primary points. Some of them believe that Christians having the ability to speak in tongues and prophesy. Some of them claim that their church is filled with miraculous healings and revivals. Some of them talk about the turning point when a Christian “makes a decision for Jesus.”

Even if you dig deeper in their official teachings, many churches tend to fill their public confessions with vague statements that have some wiggle room for interpretation. American churches tend to be afraid of commitment to any specific doctrine, because they want to be all-inclusive and facilitate everyone’s opinions. It is not necessarily a terrible thing when churches are vague or very general in their summary of beliefs. Sometimes it is necessary to be concise when giving a brief overview of what a church confesses. However, a vague and weak statement of confession, both when written or publicly proclaimed, is an indication that a church is avoiding that harsh realities of Scripture. A confession of beliefs that is void of any controversial teachings tends to be the most attractive. The ambiguity of doctrine and the preaching of “feel good gospel” is what makes non-denominational churches so attractive to many.

This lies in stark contrast to the reality of Scripture. The harsh truth that so many Christians fail to admit is that everyone is a sinner who is intrinsically opposed to what God has to say. Contrary to what members of the church growth movement have to say, unbelievers don’t resist the Church because it’s stale or old-fashioned or hypocritical. In reality, unbelievers resist the Church because they are enemies of God by nature. Even Christians, before they are brought to faith, were bound to sin and unbelief under the law. As Paul tells us in Ephesians 2 –

“You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”

 

We live in a world that makes every effort it can to resist the harsh truths of God’s Word. Popular music, hip pastors, and a softer message can’t make people a part of the Church. That power is reserved solely for God’s Word. The Word of God is the only thing that can renew a sinful heart and plant the seed of faith. Romans 10:17 reaffirms this truth – “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” The Word is the only means by which the Spirit works faith – and that Word must be taught and proclaimed in its entirety, including the truths that stand completely opposed to our society.

To be fair, some churches must do a better job of applying the gospel. The law cannot soothe a guilt-stricken heart. It only multiplies the guilt ten-fold. Only the gospel of Jesus Christ can give the guilty conscience peace and reassurance. This doesn’t mean that the law has no place in our churches. The law must be proclaimed from our pulpits and our confessions so that it may fulfill its purpose – to kill the sinful nature in order that Christ may raise it again, blameless and holy in God’s sight. “We were once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and we died” (Romans 7:9).

There is no gospel without the law. If humanity is not dead in sin, then there is no reason for forgiveness. The law has to be upheld in its entirety – if not, the gospel has lost its meaning. And in proclaiming even the harshest convictions of the law, the gospel becomes that much more beautiful. If the world is convicted of more sins, including the ones that are held highly in society, then the grace of God abounds all the more for the forgiveness of these sins.

It’s disappointing when churches don’t understand this reality of Scripture. So many churches believe that by watering down the law they can draw in more people. This might even work at first. But if we don’t fully realize our sinfulness, how can we know the gospel? It’s simple – by preaching the fulness of the law, we can administer the fulness of the gospel. There is no sin that the gospel cannot overcome.

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”

Ephesians 2:4-6 (ESV)

The Nicene Creed – Uniting Christians Across History

I’ll be honest – church wasn’t a passion of mine when I was a kid. (Hard to believe, right?) I didn’t hate it, I just didn’t completely understand its importance. I can still remember certain things happening in church when I was just a few years old. One of them feels more vivid than the rest: my reaction to the Nicene Creed.

I had always understood that there were two main creeds we confessed in church – The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. Of the two of them, the Apostles’ creed was shorter, and easier to understand. Every time our congregation recited the Nicene Creed, I became slightly frustrated. To me, it was just a long-winded version of the Apostles’ Creed. Half the stuff in it didn’t even make sense to me. God from God? Light from Light? What was the point of adding this language when the Apostles’ Creed was a perfectly good summary of Christianity?

The Apostles’ Creed definitely is a eloquent summary of the Christian faith. It highlights all three persons of the Trinity, briefly describing their areas of work and purpose. It predates the Nicene Creed, being an early confession of the Church. Early Church tradition stated that it was actually written by the Twelve Apostles, though realistically it was just a statement formulated later in the Church, having its roots in the true confession of the Apostles. It served the Church well as a confession of the true Christian faith.

The Council of Nicaea
Flash forward to the year 318 A.D. An elder of the Church, named Arius, began teaching and proclaiming that Jesus was not actually God. Rather, He was an exalted servant of the Father, not actually being divine Himself. Arius had a variety of reasons for believing this, citing Jesus’ humanity, death, and display of human emotion as reasons Jesus couldn’t actually be God. At the time that this heresy arose, the Church had not yet officially and explicitly stated the doctrine of Christ’s two natures. The ideas of Arius made sense to many Christians, giving it momentum within some of the Church.[1]

In a reaction to the spreading of this heresy, known as Arianism, a council was called together in the city of Nicaea. The council was a meeting of elders, bishops, and presbyters of the Church. The meeting consisted of a great deal of debate and discussion over the divinity of Jesus. Because His divinity was the main issue, the persons of the Father and the Holy Spirit were not a main focus.

What does this Mean?
The council ultimately ruled against the teachings of Arius; Jesus was declared to be God, just as were the Father and the Holy Spirit. However, the council didn’t just write a simple or vague statement on Jesus’ divinity. The specific wording found in the Nicene Creed was chosen so that there would be no room for another heresy to develop concerning Jesus’ divinity. The Nicene Creed specifically states:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father. Through him all things were made.

The objective of the phrases “God from God,” “Light from Light,” “True God from true God,” and “begotten, not made, of one being with the Father,” is to emphasize the fact that Jesus and the Father are “of the same substance.” (Known as homoouisios, from the Greek word “μοούσιος,” meaning “same essence.) Jesus’ unity with the Father was emphasized, while still confessing that He is the Son of God. Jesus is confessed as the true and eternal God, just the same as the other two persons of the Trinity. It is also stated that the world was created through Him. The portion of the Creed that is quoted above is the most significant addition to the general template of the Apostles’ Creed.

The implication of Jesus not being God can be discussed at great length, but in summary it has to do with our salvation. No mere human or created creature could be the one to atone the sins of the entire world. It is imperative that God Himself was our atonement.

It is difficult to actually wrap our minds around the fact that Jesus is both God and man. It’s impossible to comprehend that there are three persons, yet only one God. Instead of attempting to understand the great mysteries of the Lord, we humbly submit to the amazing Truth he has revealed to us.

Needless to say, I no longer get upset when confessing the Nicene Creed. It’s my prayer that you, too, would contemplate and recognize the importance of this confession. Ultimately, it unites modern Christians with the historical Church in one faith. Let us rejoice in the fact that Jesus has preserved the one holy and apostolic Church through all of history, and will continue to do so until he returns in glory.

“Therefore Pilate said to Him, ‘So You are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.’

John 18:37

 

1. Justin S. Holcomb, Know the Creeds and Councils, Grand Rapids, 2014, p. 34.